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THE WORLD | THE BALKANS

Macedonia's Last Chance to Survive

July 29, 2001|CHARLES A. KUPCHAN and DENKO MALESKI | Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, served on the National Security Council during the first Clinton term. Denko Maleski, a professor of international politics at the University of Skopje, served as Macedonia's U.N. ambassador from 1993-97

WASHINGTON — Macedonia is perched between peace and war. During the past week, a fragile cease-fire gave way to intense fighting in the town of Tetovo even as negotiators struggled to close a deal between Macedonia's Slavic majority and an ethnic Albanian minority that represents close to one-quarter of the country's 2 million people. After months of sporadic warfare between Macedonian forces and an Albanian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (NLA), a palpable mistrust is spreading between Macedonian Slavs and the Albanian minority. The sinews of ethnic tolerance holding Macedonia together are being stretched precariously thin.

It is too soon, however, to conclude that Macedonia will follow in the footsteps of the other former Yugoslav republics and head toward widespread war and ethnic partition. For reasons of both history and political culture, multiethnic society has a fighting chance of surviving in Macedonia. As its Macedonian and Albanian leaders search for common ground, the United States and its European allies should invest heavily in strengthening the country's firewalls against ethnic conflict. The beneficiary would be not just Macedonia, but a Balkan peninsula that could well be engulfed in war should Macedonia unravel.

As Ottoman rule in the Balkans faltered during the early years of the 20th century, Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians all laid claim to the people and land of present-day Macedonia. Although Macedonians attained the upper hand and eventually established a sovereign nation-state, their neighbors continue to question the country's origins and tell its peoples that "you are us," rather than the usual Balkan refrain of difference and exclusion. As a result, Macedonia is still in a formative stage of nation-building. Its nationalism is more moderate and benign than the kind that infected Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.

Firewalls against ethnic violence also stem from Macedonia's military weakness. Macedonia was the only republic to withdraw from Yugoslavia peacefully, and the Yugoslav army took along almost all its arms when it pulled out in 1991. Accordingly, Macedonia distanced itself from the nationalist drum-beating that soon followed throughout the rest of the former Yugoslavia.

A demilitarized society has also helped promote peaceful coexistence between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Although the current crisis has prompted rearmament and mobilization, many soldiers lack discipline and are poorly trained and equipped. Macedonia simply does not have an army that is chafing at the bit to go to war.

Social and cultural separation between Macedonians and the Albanian minority has, paradoxically, reinforced ethnic tolerance. Even in mixed cities like Skopje, the capital, the two communities keep their distance; intermarriage is rare. Although segregation has fueled discontent by instilling among Albanians a sense of being second-class citizens, it has also enabled both communities to retreat into the security of their preexisting social separation.

Macedonia is also benefiting from an improving neighborhood. Slobodan Milosevic is now in The Hague; Serbia is no longer fomenting ethnic hatred throughout the Balkans. Croatia is governed by a moderate regime. Although Athens continues to claim that Macedonia is a term belonging to Greece's northern province, Greece is now the top investor in the country, and its political ties with Skopje have strengthened considerably.

Despite these factors working in Macedonia's favor, the continuing fighting is testing the limits of the country's barriers against ethnic conflict. Macedonia's ethnic Albanians are not yet ready to take up arms. They do have a host of legitimate grievances, including limited access to higher education and public-sector jobs. Their per-capita income is lower than that of Macedonian Slavs. But the Albanians are much better off than their brethren in Kosovo or Albania proper. They also control 25 of the 120 seats in parliament and comprise almost one-third of the cabinet; some hold ambassadorships and other high posts.

The problem is that the continuing violence is gradually poisoning intercommunal relations. Support for the NLA is growing within the Albanian community, and attitudes are hardening among Macedonians. Riots and attacks on Albanian shops have occurred in both Skopje and Bitola. Even among the capital's cosmopolitan elite, ethnic battle lines are being drawn.

Holding back these escalating tensions and building on Macedonia's potential to survive as a multiethnic state will require more engagement by the international community. U.S. and European envoys are already pressing local leaders to find a diplomatic solution, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has agreed to send in troops after a deal to help disarm the NLA. But additional steps are needed.

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